About Smart Textiles and Wearables: an interview with Oscar Tomico

The impressive curriculum of Oscar Tomico makes clear that he has exceeded by far the “young promise” state. Developing several simultaneous projects as researcher and professor from Eindhoven to Tsukuba and many other renowned universities, this Barcelona- born Designer  has transformed interaction design from a weird way of imagining things to a reality surrounding us in our daily live in the more natural manner. Focusing now on Smart Textiles, he gave an enthralling talk at Replic_age 2014 Madrid about how our clothes will change and improve our lives in years to come.

Replic_age Day 2 was arriving to its end, and everyone was taking their place in front of a supersized screen where they will broadcast the Champions League final match between two historical rivals: Real Madrid vs. Atlético Madrid. While people took their beers and get ready for an intense soccer time, I asked Oscar Tomico if he would be so kind to grant me some minutes for an interview. And despite all the excitement, noise and loud laughter around us, he strung together a long thread of really deep-minded thoughts about Smart Textiles, Wearables and the future of fashion industry.

P.N. Which lines are you mainly developing by now?

O.T. Nowadays I’m focusing mainly in two lines: by one hand, designing services based on Smart Textiles; by the other, taking Wearables to fashion. On the first line we are trying to help textile industries to change with the help of creative industries, revolving the basis of their business thinking. For instance, transforming the vertical production structure to a flatter, collaborative structure. We help them to go from a very general idea about the future to specific projects to be carried out locally with available infrastructures.

Oscar Tomico at Matadero Madrid
Oscar Tomico at Matadero Madrid

P.N. There is a growing interest by locally made products. Do you think this is a real way to revert globalization?

O.T. Actually, I think that the idea of creating something separated from one’s own context and history is a dead idea. Now people is realizing that if everybody makes furniture as Ikea, Ikea will make it cheaper… so it won’t be a really good idea. Everybody making Scandinavian design, it has not sense at all. Hence people is realizing that the only way of distinguishing your product is that it reveals the place where it came, the materials and culture that come from the place of one’s own. We shall design locally for a global market.

P.N. But Wearables are a quite global concept, aren’t they?

O.T. Wearables come from technology, from computing: computers transformed into clothes. So they come from engineering, the cognitive part… But you don’t think clothes: you feel them. Clothes’ functionality comes from using them: when you wear a piece of clothing is when you realize if it is comfortable or not, how it suits you. You have to try it on to know if it suits you at all. In exchange, the way of designing Wearables now is more similar to designing webs or electronics, something like “it has to work this way” and therefore designers project an idea on a material to work exactly like the designer wants. The problem is then that the designer is making people use the artefacts only like this. So what happens? It’s just four people dictating how to use these objects. What we are trying is to turn this situation: we want wearers giving the meaning to objects, which implies that the whole design process must be different. It is a process where design takes on its meaning through the interaction of your body with the materials, in a definite context. Form, function and material should come from the use and the context of a given piece.

P.N This would be a deep change on fashion industry as well…

O.T. Fashion industry shifted from being an exploratory, inventive field to being a simple mean of communication: but it does not communicate people’s identity, it just shows brands’ identities. In some way seems that those who wear these clothes disappear as a person. Formerly clothes were adapted to the identity of those who wear them, but now is the opposite. And this tendency might go further if we develop pieces reducing our thinking to engineering, imposing the way they must be used. That’s what happens with products: a product imposes how it must be used, it doesn’t allow that its function emerges from the way of using it. For instance, you can use a hammer in many different ways as you like, but you there’s just one way of using an Ipod’s control panel. So fashion is growing more and more as vain communication and technology is acting likewise, so from the combination of both they are creating some sort of Christmas trees on the body.

P.N. It seems really hollow.

O.T. So what I find when I teach is a constant friction: if you give up on focusing on the concept, because you want function to emerge from material and context, then you don’t propose a concept on beforehand. Once you define the concept of the piece, you stop exploring. I struggle for my students to put off the moment of defining the concept as much as possible: like this they explore deeply the relationship between body, material and context. Once they really master this relationship, the real concept appears.

Oscar Tomico on stage at Replic_age 2014
Oscar Tomico on stage at Replic_age 2014

P.N. Today you have talked about, let’s say, “therapeutic” clothes.

O.T. I think that Maslow’s hierarchy is changing. More expensive meant better, gold was better than silver… but now people really don’t care about that. What they want is to live longer in a better way. Wellbeing is the new luxury. And Wearables play an important role there. Clothes can help us to better understand our body, they can heal us and make us more active. The problem here would be if we pay too much attention to it.

P.N. Narcissism?

O.T. To be more precise, the risk to pay too much attention to our bodies could make us forget the world around us. That’s why I always try to make things on context. The great potential of Smart Textiles is that you wear them, you don’t need to be in front of an screen focusing your attention to it: hence information is received directly through the senses, exactly as many other inputs you receive constantly from the world.

P.N. Don’t you think that Wearables risk to be the new ostentation?

O.T. Of course, but this would be just for some time. Many of us are working to teach and to design creating opportunities for society, amplifying experiences, providing support to existing activities… instead of creating these Wearables as the “gadget of today” to replace it for some other gadget tomorrow.

PostDigital Node

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